Why Innovation Is Rare: The Problem of Knowledge & The Curse Of Expertise

Do We Know It All?

I’d like to start this conversation by getting us mindful to a definition:

ignorance

ˈɪgn(ə)r(ə)ns/

noun

lack of knowledge or information.

“he acted in ignorance of basic procedures”

I say that our ignorance is vast.  And we are not present to our ignorance because we are convinced that we have an accurate grasp of the world: we know it all!  Our hubris blinds us that which history makes vividly clear: each age is deluded in its conviction that it has accessed the truth of what is so.  Does this remind you of Socrates? The Oracle claimed that Socrates was the wisest man because he knew that he knew nothing.  On that basis we are not wise – nowhere near close to wise.

Do You Remember This Starbucks/’Milk’ Story?

Why have I launched into this conversation?  If you read this blog then you may remember this post and this narrative:

Last week, while on an average holiday shopping trip, my mother and I decided to stop by Starbucks to get a quick snack…..

When we got up to the counter, my mother placed our simple order, at which point she asked for a “tall” cup of two percent white milk. This is how the conversation played out:

“Mocha,” said the barista.

“No. Milk,” my mother repeated.

“Mocha?”

“No. Two percent white milk.”

“Oh… Milk!”

….. I attempted to withhold my personal thoughts. Milk. You know, that white stuff you pour in the coffee? Yes, well, we want an entire cup full of that. Minus the coffee, of course.

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out, but not without a few stifled giggles.

Making Sense Of This Story Through The Insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein

You may also remember the follow up post where I made use of the insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein. And in so doing attempted to point out that:

  • every human being is always a being-in-the-world  - which is to say that the human being and the world are so interwoven that they are one not two;
  • every human being finds himself, at every moment, situated-embedded in a particular world e.g. the business world, the academic world, the public world, the world of home etc and that world ‘takes over’ the human beings working-living in that world;
  • a word such as ‘milk’ does not point at a specific object rather it, and every word-utterance, is a social tool for coordinating social action in a specific world – think for a moment what ‘milk’ means to a woman that has just given birth and compare that to what ‘milk’ means to a supermarket;
  • that the confusion that occurred at Starbucks and with the barista was due to the narrator’s mother turning up in the Starbucks world of coffee and using the word ‘milk’ inappropriately – akin to you turning up at your friend’s home for a meal, enjoying the meal and then asking for the bill; and
  • to really understand a world (e.g. the advertising world) one needs to live in that world by taking up a role in that world and doing that which goes with the role taken up.

After reading this follow up post, Adrian Swinscoe commented (bolding is my work):

I really like your exploration of this issue from a philosophical angle and learnt a lot from it…. 

However, at the end of the post I found myself wondering if the heart of the problem was something quite humdrum and that the barista just didn’t listen. She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

As you point out, if we don’t get out of our way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.

Now I want to address the points that Adrian is making. And that means grappling with the problem of knowledge and the curse of expertise.  Let’s start with Adrian’s statement “if we don’t get out of our own way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.”

Is It Possible To Get Out Of Our ‘Heads’?

If I was to get out of my own ‘head’ then whose ‘head’ would I use to be able to make sense of the world in which I find myself? Besides we are almost never in our heads, we are mostly on automatic pilot immersed in cultural practices and taken over by our habits.  If this was not the case then thinking, genuine thinking, would not be so effortful for us.  Let’s listen to Charles Guignon:

If all our practices take place within a horizon of vague and inexplicit everyday understanding , then even the possibility of something obtruding as intelligible is determined in advance by this understanding …….. the questions that I can ask and the kind of answers that would make sense are always guided by my attuned understanding of “ordinary” interpretations …. Without this understanding, nothing could strike me as familiar or strange.

For this reason Heidegger says that all explanation presupposes understanding…… The legitimate task of seeking explanations is always conducting within a horizon of understanding that guides our questioning and establishes procedures for attaining clarity and elucidation. Through our mastery of the shared language of the Anyone, we have developed specific habits and expectations that enable us to see things as obvious or puzzling...

A detective trying to make sense of how a crime was committed …. might take even the most mundane item in the room and ask how it came to be there ….. great advances have come about in the sciences through the ability of individuals to step back and question what had been taken as obvious and self-evident. But such cases of departing from established habits and expectations make sense only against a background of shared understanding which remains constant through such shifts. In other words, we can make sense of unintelligibility and a demand for explanation only within a horizon of intelligibility which is not itself thrown into question …..

- Charles B. Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge

To sum up we are always in our ‘head’ and that head arises and is kept in existence through our shared cultural practices. A particular potent cultural practices is language.  Notice that to operate in society we must speak the language of that society – everyday language.  And to operate in particular world (e.g. world of business, world of finance, world of advertising, world of healthcare ….) we must be fluent in the language of that world.

Adjustments can be made to our ‘head’ and it is not easy to make these adjustments. Why?  Adjustments are not made through thinking – not made through cognitive means.  As ‘head’ is given by roles, habits and cultural practices it is necessary to make a shift in these. How? By moving into and inhabiting-living new worlds. This is what occurs when the CEO leaves the world of the CEO and takes on-lives the role of the frontline employee for five days; Undercover Boss is all about this shift.  If you find yourself interested in that which I am speaking about here then I recommend watching the movie The Doctor (starring William Hurt) – it is instructive in a way that my words cannot instruct.

The Curse Of Expertise

How does Adrian interpret the Starbucks/’Milk’ story?  The same way that many of us interpret it:

She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

Why this conviction that ‘that which occurred’ is the fault of the barista? Why this insistence on the incompetence of the barista?  I say that this explanation is so easily forthcoming and attracting (rather like a magnet) because it is the cultural practice to see fault in front line staff, especially as these jobs are low paid, and thus lay blame on them.

What if the barista was not fatigued, not tired, speaks the language well, has no agenda?  What if, on the contrary, the barista is highly skilled in her role of serving coffee to Starbucks customers?  Is it possible expertise, not ignorance, is the cause of the snafus?  Let’s listen to a zen master and see what we can learn:

In Japan we have the phrase “shoshin” which means “beginner’s mind”. The goal of practice is to always keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose your recite the Prajna Paramitra Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it….

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The curse of expertise is that the expert only sees that which s/he has been conditioned to see; hears that which s/he has been conditioned to listen to; makes sense of that which shows up through her already given horizon of understanding (see Guignon above). Put differently, the expert is stuck in a rut: all that shows up, including the anomaly, is interpreted in times of the taken for granted.  Which is why altruistic acts are made sense of in terms of selfishness given the Darwinian frame. Or the necessity to postulate ‘dark matter’ given the need to keep the existing model of the universe intact. Or the collapsing of Customer Experience with Customer Service in the business world.  Or the insistence of seeing CRM as technology and business process change rather than a fundamental change in the ‘way we do things around here’.

As a consultant/coach/facilitator what do I bring to the table?  At my best I bring to the table a beginner’s mind where everyone on the ‘inside’ is an expert. Which is why I am often able to see that which my clients cannot see.  The challenge always is to convey that which I have seen to my clients such that they do not reinterpret it into their existing way of seeing-doing things.  Often I fail: despite my best efforts to ‘ask for milk’ I find that my clients interpret as ‘mocha’.  And when I say “No, milk!”, they respond “Surely, you are asking for Mocha!”.  And even if I strike up the courage to insist that ‘milk’ is not the same as ‘Mocha’ I find that they often confuse ‘Two percent white milk” with ‘steamed milk’.  They are not at fault, it is the curse of expertise. And it inflicts us all!

And Finally A Quote

I leave you with a quote that sums up the situation and the challenge beautifully:

Create your future from your future not your past.

- Werner Erhard

Posted on February 6, 2014, in Culture, Customer Experience, Customer Service, Employee Engagement, Innovation, Leadership / Change / Transformation, Social and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Adrian Swinscoe

    Maz,
    Thank you for the explanation.

    Adrian

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    • Hello Adrian,
      I thank you for being the source of this conversation. Without you sharing that which you shared in the earlier post I wouldn’t have gotten present to the fact that I had failed to communicate-share the central point! And it is totally true, that I had failed to communicate. As such I am present to the fact that I am now complete with this conversation and can leave it behind.

      I thank you. Please know that I value you and am grateful for your existence and the contribution your existence makes to my existence.

      At your service / with my love
      maz

      Like this

  2. Maz,

    I take your points completely. however we evolved to recognise patterns so we could react to situations quickly and effectively, rather than taking a beginners mind at all times.

    So I suspect there is no right answer to how we should behave, it is completely contextual.

    James

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    • Hello James,
      You show up for me as a ‘soul brother’. And that explain why it is that I find myself in such affinity with you.

      Yes, I find myself in total agreement with you. We are not thinking beings, we are beings who have a repertoire of behaviour which is switched on-off by particular situations we have lived: we recognise and act on patterns before our conscious brain utters it’s first thought.

      I say not only is there no right answer to how we should behave, the automatic search for a right answer is cultural practice arising from religion. Religion being the source of what is right and wrong so as to not bring about the ‘wrath of the gods’ and ‘bring forth their blessings’.

      What a beautiful way to end that which you shared here: “it is completely contextual”. Fantastic. If you/i get this then what is the impact/implication? All normative theories/commandments (‘thou shalt not kill’, ‘implement best practices’ , ‘purpose of business is pursuit of shareholder value’…) are automatically placed in doubt. Thus, you and I render ourselves truly free to do that which is appropriate given the particular context – in this moment.

      At your service / with my love
      maz

      Like this

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